Greece’s economy may be pressed on all sides by austerity measures, capital controls, and political forces within and without. But as the October start of the olive harvest approaches, some of the country’s entrepreneurs see a rare opportunity to take market share from Spain and Italy, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 producers of olive oil.
Lousy weather, a mysterious tree disease, and a fruit fly that feasts on olives have decimated groves in Italy. Nearly a tenth of the 10 million trees in Puglia are infected with a disease that has been dubbed “olive ebola” (some scientists believe it is the bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa), which slowly kills the trees. As a result, Italy’s olive oil producers are bracing for another bad season, on the heels of a 34 percent decline in output in 2014-15, to 302,000 metric tons, according to data from the Madrid-based International Olive Council (IOC). Production in Spain fell by more than half, to 825,700 tons, in the most recent season, and will likely remain depressed due to a prolonged drought.
Greece saw its output more than double in the previous season, to 300,000 tons, and the local industry is hopeful it will be close to that in the coming season. Thanks to this combination of factors, Greek olive oil is more competitive than ever, at least on a price basis. According to a June report from the council, wholesale prices for extra-virgin categories from Italy and Spain have surged 114 percent and 84 percent this year, respectively, to €5.66 ($6.25) per kilo and €3.59 per kilo. In contrast, prices for Greek oil have climbed just 24 percent, to €3.09 per kilo.
The price advantage is helping small and midsize producers who make up most of Greece’s olive oil industry find new markets. The IOC reports Greek exports from the most recent harvest to the U.S., now the world’s top importer of olive oil, rose 28 percent from October 2014 through June of this year, while exports from Spain and Italy both dropped more than 50 percent.
At Costco Wholesale, 2-liter bottles of the retailer’s Kirkland Signature extra-virgin olive oil sport a cap tinted Aegean blue, in place of a green cap, a subtle reference to the company’s switch this year from Italian to Greek oil. Depending on crop conditions, “It can be tough for us to source all of our product out of Italy every year,” says Chad Sokol, a buyer for Costco in Northern California. “It’s fantastic oil coming out of Greece. It doesn’t have cachet with Americans yet. But we think it will.”
Greece is home to more than 520,000 olive growers, many of whom rely on traditional methods such as handpicking the fruit. Cold pressing, where a machine crushes the olives to extract the oil without the aid of heat or chemicals, is the norm. This qualifies four-fifths of Greece’s oil to carry the higher-quality extra-virgin designation, compared with about two-thirds in Italy and a third in Spain.
All the same, Greece’s Mediterranean rivals have done a better job selling consumers on their methods and purity, according to many experts, including Tom Mueller, who wrote Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. He contends that about 70 percent of the olive oil sold in the U.S. isn’t extra-virgin, though it’s labeled as such. (A 2011 study by the University of California at Davis Olive Center found that nearly three-quarters of top-selling imported brands failed to meet international standards for the extra-virgin designation.) “Italy makes some beautiful olive oils. But they have been riding on the coattails of the Greeks, buying olives from all over the Mediterranean and passing it off as Italian olive oil,” says David Neuman, who heads the North American subsidiary of Athens-based Gaea Products. “This is the moment when Greece can recapture some of that market.”
Gaea aims to do just that. Its chief executive officer, Aris Kefalogiannis, the son of a conservative political family from Crete, started a shipping logistics company before switching to olive products in the mid-1990s. He says Gaea logs about $14 million in sales annually and expects that to rise to $16 million this year.
The company has already made inroads in Germany and is pushing to boost sales in the U.S. In February it hired Neuman, who previously ran Lucini Italia, a Miami-based purveyor of Italian olive oils, vinegars, and pasta sauces. Gaea’s packaging and branding have been revamped, with an emphasis on telling the story of Greece’s traditional methods of making olive oil. The company is also adding more organic oils and packaged olives to its lineup. “Greece has the potential to be the organic grove of Europe,” says Kefalogiannis.
In July, Whole Foods Market began selling Gaea’s oils and olives at many of its stores in the Northeast. “Customers are more interested than ever in tasting new varietals and experimenting with new flavors,” says Dwight Richmond, the company’s global grocery purchasing coordinator. He and others compare olive oils to wines, suggesting that U.S. consumers could create a boom across all price ranges.
Gaea is a prime example of the “small-sized but dynamic” companies that Gregory Antoniadis, president of the Greek Olive Oil Packers Association, says are helping elevate the profile of what the poet Homer called “liquid gold.” Other companies include Eleia, Minerva Edible Oils Enterprises, and Agrovim. Antoniadis’s organization saw exports double from 2005 to 2012, and he expects them to double again by 2017.
“Greek producers can make some modest gains this year,” says Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. However, to make sustained progress, Greece’s olive oil industry will have to overcome the lingering effects of droughts in 2012 and 2013 that stunted production, fend off the diseases devastating the Italian olive groves, and weather the financial crisis that is making credit scarce. Says Flynn: “One question is whether Greek olive oil can achieve the status of Kalamata olives and Greek yogurt among consumers.”
The bottom line: Soaring prices for Italian and Spanish olive oil led to this year’s 28 percent increase in U.S. imports of Greek oil.
(In the fourth paragraph, corrects to show that the U.S. is the world's top importer of olive oil.)